Mara took us down into the caves because we were bored, and because she was the oldest so it was her job to figure out what to do when me and Kay were bored. No one had found a new hiding place for Hide and Seek in three years, and all the board games in the game room were either for grown-ups or babies, and we weren’t allowed to play Hiding From The Martians anymore after the time when we burst out of the storage locker screaming, “Aaaaaaaah, it’s the Martians!” at Dr. Hatae and made her drop her geological samples all over the floor, which took her three hours to sort out.
It wasn’t that hard how Mara did it. We lived practically right on top of Cave Dena since the lava tubes were the best protection on the whole planet from the UV rays and the micro-asteroids and the wind storms and everything. And the living quarters were the farthest down, because again, UV rays and micro-asteroids and wind storms and all that junk that meant living on Mars was actually, like, super boring, because 99% of the time you weren’t allowed anywhere near a window, let alone outside. So all Mara really had to do was wait until it was Dr. Okorafor’s turn to babysit us after school period because Dr. Okorafor was basically happy as long as we were in another room not making a lot of noise and she could catch up on the last six years of reality television as beamed direct from Earth. And then we just had to leave some theme music playing at low volume while we snuck out down the hall and pressed the code for the door to the part of the caves the grown-ups used for storage, which we all knew because the grown-ups just made one code for basically all the doors that didn’t have radioactive stuff behind them, like we were never going to notice that they always punched in the same seven numbers every time they took us into a lab.
The front part of the caves was almost as bright as the habs and the labs, with big halogen lights scattered all over, reflecting off the tarps hung up on the walls and almost completely covering up all the bands of red and orange and brown sandstone. There were great big crates everywhere, all the stuff that was too fragile to be stored outside, like backup computer parts, or too precious to risk, like emergency rations and seed packets in case the greenhouse got busted open.
It was super-cold in the caves, even with the insulation of the complex above us. There was dust everywhere, that really fine powdery dust that you get on Mars, and it was all over my shoes and I was worried that even the really powerful scrub-vac in the airlock between here and there wasn’t going to be enough to get it all out, ‘cause if it wasn’t then the dust was going to get in all the air vents and computers in our family hab, and everyone was going to know where we had been and we were going to be so screwed.
“This is boring,” I said. “It’s just some dumb cave.”
Mara punched me in the shoulder. “We haven’t even gotten in the cave, dummy.”
And then she gestured at the secondary airlock, the one with the little symbol for the emergency shelter. “We’ve gotta go through that if we’re gonna go Martian Hunting.”
It was dark in the cave. Like someone had taken the blackest black from my paint set and dumped it over everything; plus, Mara wouldn’t let us turn on the flashlight function on our handcoms because it would “alert the Martian advance scouts.” And obviously I one hundred percent didn’t believe there were any Martians, because the grown-ups had done a bazillion scans for life-forms not to mention digging into the rock for like twenty years, it was just that it was so dark you would never ever see them even if they were there, and the floor was jagged and crunchy under my feet and I had to shuffle along just a tiny bit at a time so I didn’t tumble off a cliff and if I took my hand off the wall or my other hand away from Kay’s where she insisted on gripping it then it was so easy to believe that I was nowhere at all, that I had stopped existing, that I was tumbling through nothingness and that I would never be found at all.
And there were weird echoes. Weird, super spooky echoes that took our voices and turned them into ghosts that slithered behind us to tickle our necks, and before us to warn us away.
We were whispering, of course, because that was part of the game. It wasn’t like our parents were going to be able to hear us. It definitely wasn’t because we were maybe thinking about how the grown-ups had probably never actually mapped this entire cave, like it would be very easy for them to have missed just one bend, and that was definitely going to be the bend that the monsters were going to come pouring out of.
I was doing my best to keep my cool because of Kay, because I was just the middle sister and she was the kind of little sister who didn’t think that made me old enough for awe, so one little slip and she was going to be shrieking scaredy-cat, scaredy-cat between hysterical giggles every time I came into a room for a month if I was lucky, but most likely for the rest of our actual lives.
I was paying so much attention to not acting scared that I didn’t notice that my handcom had come loose at my belt, and when Mara grabbed my shoulder, impatient, to yank me forward, it fell and hit the ground.
And the hooves of a thousand horses thundered around us.
Kay cried out; we all did—a sudden, sharp cry cut short by how quickly the thundering roll faded away, and by how obviously untrampled we were.
Mara clicked on her handcom’s flashlight function, so Kay clicked hers on too, and I grabbed mine off the floor and followed suit—terrified or not, we knew better than to break game rules unless Mara did so first.
“What the hell was that?” Mara said, and Kay and I almost gasped at her daring. She glared at me. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything!” I protested, hating how my voice verged into a whine. “You grabbed me and then—”
She reached out to hit me, and I knew it wouldn’t be very hard and normally I would have let her, but I was all filled up with righteous indignation so I swung up my arm to block her, and the flesh of my arm smacked against hers like the clap of a drum—
And the hooves of the horses rang out against the stone again, ringing off all the walls around us before petering away into the distance.
I raised my hands slowly and clapped them together in a rhythm, clap-clap, clap-clap, the horses’ hooves turned into a neat and ordered trot like they were on parade instead of a stampede.
“An echo,” Mara said, pretending that she hadn’t been scared at all the whole time. “Just a stupid echo.”
But before that sentence was even finished I had seen it, the light from my handcom picking up that graceful twist of the neck, that long curve of the tail. I swept my handcom diagonally, and there it was.
It was real high up on the wall, and my handcom was basically a candle compared to the big halogens back in the main cave, but even just from that you could tell it hadn’t been some kind of fluffy toon unicorn. It was more like the ones you saw in old medieval times tapestries where they’re part goat and part lion—not that it looked exactly like those pictures, but it had the wildness of them, you know? It looked like a free thing, like it could bite you, like any second it was going to rip a piece out of you and there’d be blood everywhere and my own blood froze in this combination of being terrified and joyous at the same time because this was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I’m talking about the way it made me feel because that was the first thing I noticed before any of the actual details seeped in. The actual details were: it was about six feet tall and nine feet long. The paint was red, just barely two shades darker than the stone underneath it. You could tell it was paint, though, because of how the lines crisscrossed the bands of color underneath it, just thick enough that it cast the slightest shadow over the grain of the rock.
It had its hooves raised, striking.
“Guys,” I whispered. “Look.”
And even Kay didn’t laugh.
At first, we just did different sound effects.
Fist against palm was pretty good for hoofbeats, but it was even better if you brought out a pair of cups and smacked them together on their rims. We all tried doing a neigh and we all said Mara was the best even though it was Kay, but Kay ended up doing it because Mara wanted to narrate the stories. First we did a lot of stories about one lone Martian unicorn—there was the one that was like its origin story which I still think was the best, and then it had a bunch of adventures in the tunnels trying to find its herd which it never did—and then we decided it needed to meet other characters.
We talked about bringing paints in but we weren’t supposed to take those out of the art room, so we took tubes of grape juice concentrate and orange juice concentrate and we used that slush to dye grooves we carved in the wall with sharp rocks. Sometimes the rock was too hard for us to chip away at with the crumbling sandstone in our cold fingers, and so we had to try to use the shape of it in whatever we were making: a rounded swell like a unicorn’s neck stretching, a jagged outcropping like a windflowing mane or a snarl of teeth.
We made a herd of smaller unicorns down where we could reach, and then Mara made a really big dragon, so we had to bring in some tarps to do the sound of the wings and trickle some sand for a hiss; the roar was really hard and usually sounded just like a louder neigh no matter who did it. We made a whole troop of Martians that hunted the unicorns and the dragon with spears and arrows—we slapped our own shoes together for their footprints, and whistled for the arrows going through the air, and Mara made up this whole Martian language that I think was maybe pig Latin Mandarin.
“Can’t we do something else?” I said after Mara finished the third battle scene one afternoon. “The Martians just keep killing a bunch of unicorns, and then the unicorns kill all the Martians and they’re happily ever after until another Martian camp shows up that they missed. It’s boring.”
“It is not,” Mara said. “You’re just not doing the sound effects right. It’s not exciting if you don’t do the effects right.”
“I liked the old unicorn stories,” I said. “Can’t we go back and do those?”
“We have to keep doing it if you’re not going to do it right the first time,” Mara said stubbornly. “Try the flashlight thing again.”
We had started doing some light effects too; if you flicked the switch on and off fast enough, it made the paintings flicker like they were moving. It was stilted and jerky, though, like the files of old silent movies that Dr. Hatae would show when it was her turn to choose communal movie night. Even moving my finger as fast as I could, our creatures stopped and started like robots. I tried to think of what could make them move smoothly, with the sinuous grace of live animals that I had not seen for ten years in anything other than nature documentaries.
“We need fire,” I said.
It was time to bring in the cousins.
Carlos had already been almost sent to Earth because the grown-ups caught him messing around trying to set fires which is like the capital A number one offense when you basically live in a giant oxygen bubble, but Earth didn’t want him any more than Mars did. Not because of the fires thing, which is less of a big deal when the oxygen bubble you live in covers the entire planet, but because Carlos had a tricky citizenship thing where he was born to American and Guatemalan parents on a Russian space shuttle en route to a multinational corporation’s scientific research site sponsored by Singapore on Mars, and basically every government on Earth was hoping he would never come back and make them have to figure out what country he should be a citizen of and where he should live and what rights he should have.
You would think having an infamous pyro join the team would be a big plus in figuring out how to get flame light effects, but the “infamous” part really tripped us up because when they couldn’t ship him back to Earth, every single adult basically made it their life mission to keep Carlos away from anything remotely incendiary or flammable, to the point where the second he started walking into a room people would start clearing things off counters. He was a total dud.
It was actually his little brother, Bram, that ended up being able to crack the code. Bram is the kid who all the grown-ups think is responsible but is actually just sneaky, to the extent that sometimes he goes out of his way to be responsible just to have insurance next time so if something blows up in his face all the grown-ups will go, “Well, it couldn’t be Bram, he’s such a responsible young man, he volunteered to do extra chores last week even though it wasn’t his turn.” Bram and I were a lot alike that way, except I hadn’t found anything good to have insurance against until we started making the cave movies.
Anyway, Bram figured out that we had to go old school and get a flint and tinder. Flint wasn’t too bad because we lived with a bunch of geologists, so we just sent our other cousin Zora-Neale through the ventilation ducts—Zora-Neale had space bones and was basically a bird—and had her take one of the really old samples that they probably wouldn’t consult again for like fifty years. Tinder was more tricky. Even before the whole Carlos situation came to light, it hadn’t really been considered a good idea to leave flammable stuff around. Eventually we came up with:
- A special occasions cotton sundress that Zora-Neale’s parents used to make her wear before she grew out of it.
- The blank pages at the front and end of the five physical books in the library (insurance for when we lost cloud access during a sandstorm), ripped out as carefully as we could so no one would notice.
- Dried leaves from the compost bin in the greenhouse.
- Half of a bottle of vodka from our parents’ storage unit, the difference made up with water.
The flames looked really good, even with the oxygen being a little lower so far down in the caves from the storage room. The animals rippled on the walls, and if I made the sound effect at just the right time when she wasn’t expecting it, I could make even Mara jump away from the swipe of the dragon claws. We did one big epic with the cousins, now that we could actually do more than three characters, one always lapsing into a narrator voice and two always a little breathless from running around doing the sound effects. Carlos did a different panel for each scene and moved the props while Mara did the narrating so that the next scene would be set up. I did just the hand sound effects now and Kay did the voice ones. Bram was flint and Zora-Neale was tinder and when we weren’t setting up the story or doing the story or arguing about how we should do the story next time, they had their heads bent together over Mara’s old chemistry textbook pointing and whispering.
Pretty soon Mara announced she wanted colored flames for her next big epic, which would be about how the Martians were forced to leave the planet due to some kind of catastrophe. Zora-Neale and Bram were ready. They brought in spent batteries, cracked them open and scooped out the insides; that made the flames red. Carlos distracted the grown-ups while Bram and I raided the kitchen for ingredients that seemed like they might work: the sugar packets gave us little sparks, and the powdered coffee gave us sparkly flashes, both perfect for magic spells and battle scenes. The salt made an orange flame, and salt substitute made purple but it disappeared unless we used just the precious vodka as a fuel source, so Bram told Mara we would have to save it for the big Martian take-off at the end. Zora-Neale sacrificed her own calcium supplements to try to get more orange—the grown-ups had definitely missed the salt at breakfast and were watching us like hawks at meals now to make sure we weren’t “hoarding rations” which was like the number two sin after starting fires when you live a billion miles away from your food sources—but the supplements must have had traces of something else because the flames came out yellow. She was so annoyed that she went through the ventilation ducts again to raid the sample cases for iron, aluminum, and magnesium, which we tried to follow her instructions to shave and scrape as fine as possible; it was supposed to make gold and silver sparks. We tried for a whole week—Mara was still working on the script and I think was glad we were off singeing our fingers and not bugging her—and Carlos even said at one point that he did see some sparks; I never saw anything. After the third raid for tinder, though, we all knew we just had to press through and hope it worked in the grand finale.
We had a launch party: Mara unveiling her script, Kay and I practicing where the sound effects would go, Carlos and Bram and Zora-Neale miming the powder throws after their first demonstrations to conserve them for the show. Mara was in her element, big-sistering her way through the whole thing like a more organized Martian windstorm. I really think it was her best work—she’d managed to find parts for everybody, but she kept it moving. The main character was the unicorn again, this time trapped in the rock by a freak avalanche after losing its herd. It had gone into a dormant state only to awaken when it heard the fire of human rocket ships. It spent a lot of time watching the humans, which were super strange to it, and I think the best part of it was how Mara made the humans strange to us too, so we were on the edge of our seats wondering if they could be trusted, if it was safe for the unicorn to try to go meet them so it wouldn’t be lonely anymore, or if—
Carlos saved up some of the sausage links from an MRE but we didn’t have any toothpicks so we pinched them between our fingers and scorched them quick as we could on the fire before popping them hot into our mouths, licking the juice off our fingers. Our fingers were still dusted with powder, and salt substitute and crushed calcium crunched in our teeth. Aluminum dust gave us vampire smiles in the dark.
“Hoarding rations!” one of us said, and we all laughed, and Zora-Neale leaned against the wall, and when her hand came away she had left a perfect white handprint behind, and that was how we got the idea for the next story, the one we wrote all together.
We wrote about the unicorn.
I’m not going to tell you what we wrote. You’d laugh. You wouldn’t understand. You’d have to be a kid to understand, the way the words would have filled you up as warm as hot soup, as bubbly as soda pop, as dizzy as the sips of vodka we stole out of our precious fuel supply in celebration. The way the story came out of you, all of you, so big and grand and right and perfect it was like a thing already made that had called you up to make sure someone would tell it. The way the whole universe, all the stars and planets and asteroids and everything, lined up so perfect for one moment that it was like you could see everything and it was perfect too, and you didn’t wonder or worry for a second if you were being too silly, too grand, too self-important.
You get these moments, sometimes, when you’re a kid, with other kids.
You never have a way to explain them, after.
We needed the whole cave for what we had planned. That meant gears and pulleys. That meant Mara and Bram and me paying a midnight visit to the Rover graveyard outside the habs and labs with screwdrivers and flashlights, in too-big suits that bunched up weird around our shoulders and knees, and then Mara and Carlos and me hoisting Zora-Neale and Kay up the cavern wall on a homemade elevator system to paint scenery, and hang flashlights we could set off with remote controls and windchimes we could trigger with pull cords, and tape fuses running to little stashes of paper and pigment dust. We almost fell like fifteen times and Kay got a big scrape on her arm that we had to lie to the grownups about and say she’d gotten from the raspberries in the greenhouse which got us greenhouse-banned for the next week and we had to be a lot more careful sneaking away.
I’ve already said that I can’t tell you what the story was about, but I can tell you this: it was only the beginning. I could already see it, stretching out into the future. It didn’t wrap everything up—it branched everything out in a thousand directions. We would never be done telling it, and we’d never want to be.
We were doing a really tricky part where I was having to hold Kay up to paint for practically an hour, my arms aching but I didn’t dare shift because Kay had the tiniest brushes out for the details, the highlights in slightly lighter purple and orange that would bring it to life when the light hit it just so. Mara stood behind us and I heard the breath sigh out of her in satisfaction like we were painting the Mona Lisa, and her hand clapped down hard on my shoulder.
“That’s just right,” she said. “That’s perfect. Good job.”
I don’t think Mara had ever said anything like that before.
Do you know what it’s like, when your big sister says something like that and she’s never said anything like that before?
She could have knighted us and it wouldn’t have felt one single bit better than her hand, and those words, for the first time.
We were overconfident.
All through dinner we shot looks at each and didn’t even try to hide our giggles behind hands. Our pockets bulged with supplies. I took a packet of salt substitute right off the table while my mother asked Dr. Hatae about a particular vein of iron-rich sandstone.
We thought we were invincible.
We tumbled through the airlock afterwards like lemmings, our shoes blazing our trail through the sand like an arrow pointing to all our secrets.
We had gotten used to our parents not paying attention. We had confused it with being blind.
When I look back it seems like it happened as soon as our feet touched the sandstone floor in front of our movie screen wall, but we must have had longer than that because I remember Kay with a rope in her hands, adjusting one final light, the way it swung out over the unicorn’s mane and lit a spark of mica in its eye that I had never seen before, that made it seem to be looking at me.
We must have had longer than that because I remember Mara calling “Places!” and there was Zora-Neale crouched with her powders and Bram with his matches and Carlos and Kay and me with all the props, and Mara’s mouth opening to speak the first words of that story that would begin all stories:
“Once upon a time—”
The room flooded with light.
Seven big handcom bulbs and suddenly it was all gone, the shading and the tone bleached away until all that was left was scrawls and scratches on a wall like graffiti, and that was all they saw. The plastic cup slipped from my hand, but the echo—it would have been like the rocks shifting around us, like the cave shifting its feet deciding whether to fall—was drowned by the shouting of the adults.
Our mother was lit from the back by Aunt Signe’s flashlight, and it made it look like she was on fire. “How could you—thought you had better sense than this—these are pristine geological formations, that data is useless now—we’ve told you and we’ve told you—unmapped, unstable, you could have been killed—millions of dollars worth of biological data, contaminated—”
They towered over us like giants, and everything we had built looked so small. Our words, that we had marshaled and shepherded so carefully into epics, fled our throats.
Mara tried to say something about it being safe because she was there to look after us, but our parents’ hands were already on our arms and pulling us out of the chamber. I tripped and tripped on the way back up, as if the glare of their flashlights had stolen something from me too, not just our paintings.
Kay gave out one last howl, not quite a neigh, as they pulled her away from her ropes and pulleys. This time it did echo—and I looked back, one last time, at everything we had made, and the one thing we had not, but that the grown-ups would never believe.
I never saw the unicorn again.
They didn’t wash it away.
The rest of the grown-ups let us believe they had, but after my fourth day of refusing food, Dr. Okorafor swore me to secrecy and then told me that the unicorn was still there. It hadn’t scrubbed off with the rest, and the grown-ups had given up in disgust.
We were grounded, little bots keyed to our signatures and monitoring us for months. The first big lecture they gave us was only the beginning, an original work often reprised in miniature installments about the sins of wasting resources (particularly our limited supply of biological material meant for the greenhouse), defacement and contamination of native environments, and lying.
We tried to tell the truth about the unicorn, but even Dr. Okorafor didn’t believe anything we said anymore.
We kept telling the stories for a while, in whispers or in coded notes passed during the lag time in all the Earth correspondence courses our parents had suddenly signed us up for. We told them a lot that first year, pretty much whenever we could. We told them less the year after that. It was like the air had gone out of them. Mara was getting really into physics and Carlos was getting into poetry, and Bram and Zora-Neale were always off making fanvids of some new retro K-Pop band. Kay started to say the unicorn hadn’t even been there, that we’d just imagined it. She said it even more after I punched her in the mouth the first time and got in trouble for it, that big smirk that said she didn’t care how far she pushed me because she’d always be right.
It was like it meant nothing that the strain of my shoulders had suspended her in the air, that I had helped her fly.
It sucked, but it made me glad that I had never shared with her or any of the others the last glimpse I had of the unicorn, so washed out under the retreating halogen lights.
The way a shadow flickered across it that might have been a silhouette, from where no silhouette could have been cast.
We think we know this planet. We’ve mapped its tunnels until they’re as familiar as our fingerprints, camped out on its surface and sampled its sediments, drilled down to its core to bare its heart to us. And we think that means we know it.
But the unicorn was there. Someone before us painted it.
And I saw a shadow.
Someone was watching our Martian cinema. Someone who, I think—I hope?—approved.
Someone is still there, with the unicorn on the wall, and the stories, and all the things that we planned. Someone is waiting with all our words, our flashes of light and bursts of color and stripes of sound that we had yet to bring forth.
Someone is still there, waiting for me—waiting for us, and all the stories we could have told.